A mulled wine on a winter’s night. A log fire burning in the corner of a country pub. A genial Tom Hanks speaking words of wisdom down the barrel of a camera. These are but a few things that might warm the cockles of your heart. Only one of them is present in director Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood – and it doesn’t take a genius to guess which one that is.
TV presenter Fred Rogers was a 20th Century American institution. His show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, educated a whole generation of children from 1968 all the way up to its final broadcast in 2001. As Rogers moved through the twilight years of his career in the late ’90s, he crossed paths with Esquire journalist Tom Junod. The intention was a simple interview piece, but what actually happened went beyond the typical journalist/subject relationship and altered Junod’s perspective on life for good.
“Sometimes we get to change a broken world with our words,” Lloyd Vogel (Tom Junod by another name) declares during a speech at the National Magazine Awards. He’s just received one of their most prestigious prizes, and while his fearsome reputation has bagged him a gong, his excoriating exposés on the rich and famous have shrunk his pool of potential subjects. Now, no one wants to cross paths, let alone swords, with the lauded hack. Naturally, Rogers (Hanks) is the last name on Vogel’s list and he is dispatched by his editor to write a 400-word article on the beloved star for their next issue. Vogel has a young child, a beautiful wife and a successful career, but is overwhelmed by anger he holds for his father who bailed on their sick mother when he was a child. Rogers, on the other hand, is saint-like by comparison. A man of unceasing patience and unending compassion.
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Unfortunately, the film’s plot is so heavily telegraphed that surprises are few and far between. Heller’s attempt to elevate some fairly pedestrian material is admirable, but ABDITN still feels sluggish in parts. Hanks is as brilliant as you might expect, morphing into Rogers by aping his mildly crooked gait and slow enunciation. It’s a typically reliable turn from the two-time Oscar winner and he carries the movie.
Recently, Hollywood has made a habit of delving into magazine archives in search of new material. Only last year, A Private War – the biopic formed around a Vanity Fair piece on war correspondent Marie Colvin – hit cinemas. A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood uses a similar tactic. In both cases, the filmmakers have had trouble sustaining the mid-sections of the story. These are the parts where invention and conjecture must plug any gaps left by the source material.
Junod may have had his life changed after meeting Fred Rogers, but few watching A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood will have a similar sensation. Although, for a man whose life was characterised by a distinct lack of drama, maybe that was a little too much to ask anyway.